[Update: Interplanetary has since entered early access testing via Steam, and many improvements have been added. For the most part, however, what I describe below still applies to the current state of the game, although I am happy to say that the combat aiming system has been improved.]
There was a time over three decades ago (which I am embarrassed to say that I remember well) when owning a gaming console or having a home computer was very rare. This was back when Commodore was the go-to computer brand, and MS-DOS wasn’t much more than a glint in Bill’s eye. It was during this time that video games first started to make their insurgence into people homes, and we all know how that story took off.
I bring up this quick history lesson because during this time of video gaming pioneering there was a particular type of video game that was a mainstay of the craft, that is, the artillery game. The premise was simple. Two opposing players are placed in control of two artillery bunkers situated at opposite ends of a randomly generated terrain, and they take turns firing shells at each other. Each player needed to account for terrain, wind, angle, and shell velocity in order to hit the enemy player, which actually made the game harder than it seemed. It was one of the earliest forms of video game PvP, right behind the ubiquitous Pong. The artillery game was even often used as programming assignment in many early computer science classes.
Things have changed a lot since then in the world of video gaming and the artillery-esque games have long since been supplanted in the industry by other more popular genres. It isn’t entirely forgotten though, and there have been some notable artillery-esque games developed over the years. In particular, Team17 have had a raging success with their Worms series of games and they seem to be doing something right because there always seem to be a new Worms du jour being released at any given time. Kudos to them for helping to keep the genre alive for so long.
And this brings us to the present, where another in-development game is poised to another run at the artillery genre. Interplanetary, from the fine Finnish folks at Team Jolly Roger, represents another and more modern take on the genre. Gone is the terrain, and in its stead we have planets orbiting in a solar system. Gone is the wind, and in its stead we have celestial mechanics and gravity. Sound intriguing? I thought so too when I first heard about Interplanetary, and Team Jolly Roger were kind enough to give me a taste of the game.
It is important to note that Interplanetary involves more than simply firing at enemy planets. Quite a bit more, as it turns out. Besides merrily bombarding your enemy, you have other things to manage, so let me break the game down and discuss the various aspects of the game piece by piece. Bear in mind that Interplanetary is currently in alpha testing, and as such everything I discuss here is still in development and subject to change.
To give you some context for the rest of the article, I have uploaded some gameplay taken from a match I played by myself using the hot seat multiplayer mode. This video was recorded later in the match once each planet was built up a bit, which will better give you an idea of the game.
Currently in the alpha test only the multiplayer modes are available, although modes using AI opponents will be implemented in the future. The multiplayer modes thus far include LAN, online, and hot seat multiplayer. Unfortunately I was never able to try anything other than hot seat multiplayer mode because I never saw any other alpha testers online at the same time as me (the curse of time zones I suppose). From what I understand, online multiplayer matches are currently free-for-all, with team-based multiplayer to be added down the road.
Like other artillery-esque games, Interplanetary operates on a turn-based system, but with a twist. Instead of true turn-based procession, Interplanetary uses a simultaneous turn-base system with every player making their decisions and firing solutions at the same time. Once everyone locks in, the system then carries out all orders simultaneously, which can be a nail biting moment when you not only wait to see if you shots hit the enemy but also have to watch as the incoming barrage either hits or misses your planet. I like it, and it helps keep the game moving along rather than doing nothing while your opponent goes to work. Of course, the hot seat mode still requires each player to take their turn sequentially, but the orders are still carried out simultaneously at the end of each round.
By the way, every match uses a randomly generated solar system. Player placement is randomized in terms of their planet position, direction of their planet’s orbit, and the placement of their planet’s infrastructure, which I will get to in a bit. I am a bit concerned about what happens in 3+ player games with player placement, because it seems that the player that gets the outer orbits would have the advantage, whereas those stuck in the intermediate orbits could be bombarded more easily from two sides. But, because I never actually had a chance to play the multiplayer, I can’t say for sure if this will be an issue, but I do wonder about it. I will update this concern once I manage to find some other human opponents.
Interplanetary uses some very attractive visuals, with 3D renderings of the solar system and each planet. Players can zoom in and out, pan around, and rotate around to get a good look at any aspect of the solar system. The planets themselves look quite nice when zoomed in. The UI is clean and functional. There isn’t much more to say about the visual beyond that at this stage in the alpha test.
Infrastructure and Technology
Probably the biggest difference for Interplanetary versus the classic artillery games is the inclusion of infrastructure and technology. Each starting planet has a set number of cities randomly placed around the procedurally generated planets, and from there players must build up their tech and structures. The cities are the key structures though, and you need to keep their populations alive and thriving. Lose too many cities or too much population and you lose the match.
At first glance it seems simple enough, but once you dig into it a bit you start to see the depth, and it this planet management is really the heart of the game. You have a limited number of buildings that you can construct using a limited amount of resources (more on that in a bit). More structures can be unlocked via research, but it takes time to unlock everything so you need to plan ahead. Everything must be linked to cities and power in some fashion, and structures have a limited number of links that they can make. For any of you that play EVE Online and have done the planetary interaction (which was one of my favourite parts of EVE Online), planet management feels a lot like that.
The technology tree allows players to unlock new buildings and bonuses, but as I said it takes time to unlock the different branches, so you really need to think about what your goals are. You may want to go with more defensive buildings and bonuses and play for the long game. Or perhaps you want more offense for a quick attack. Do you choose to go for intelligence gathering technology to make your missiles and lasers more effective, or do you prefer to build more weapons and simply shoot in the dark? Or perhaps you want counter-intelligence technology to protect your planet from prying eyes. The choice is yours.
In the end it is these choices that really make Interplanetary interesting. You can choose to clump your buildings together under some shields and defense systems, and pray they hold up, or you can spread your building around which makes it harder to defend but makes it less likely that they will all take damage. You need to build power stations and mine as well to keep the resources flowing. It really is a fine balance that a player needs to strike, and it makes the game more challenging.
Each planets starts with a set amount of energy and materials, each of which are necessary for keeping the lights on, so to speak. Energy and materials are both needed for building new structures, but beyond that you need them for different things.
Energy is further used to fire weapons and power defenses, and this balance must be handled with care. Use too much energy during a turn for building and firing, and you may not have enough to power your shields to protect against enemy attacks. Keep too much energy for defenses and you may not be able to launch enough firepower to do much damage. Building more power plants helps, but focusing on too many power plants at the expense of other infrastructure may slow you down. It is yet another line to walk in the game.
And the use of materials makes it even more interesting. Materials can be extracted by building mines, and material efficiency can be improved via research. But no matter what, and this is a critical point, every planet has a limited amount of materials. Once they are gone, you can no longer build, and more importantly you can no longer repair. This game mechanic ensures that matches don’t go on forever due to players repairing everything every turn. Smart players will keep this in mind and manage their materials carefully.
OK, this is where the action happens. Players can build any combination of three types of weapons: railguns, missile launchers, and lasers. Each type has distinct advantages and disadvantages. Railguns are cheap, don’t need much energy to fire, and do decent damage. However, assuming that your aim is true, their shells break up over a target planet and spread over an area with no targeting, meaning they may or may not hit any structures. These are good weapons to use if you are firing blind and don’t have a lot of energy resources.
Missiles do excellent damage and can be used to target a specific area on the enemy planet (although you still need to hit the planet first), and have a decent radius of damage. Lasers are similar, but have smaller radius of effect. The advantage of lasers is that they are instant hit, so if you can aim them directly at the target planet you will hit no matter what.
One thing to note about missiles and lasers is that they aren’t very useful if you don’t have intelligence-gathering structures such as telescopes. If you have enough of an intelligence rating to overcome your opponents counter-intelligence rating, you will be able to see structures on the enemy planet that you can target with the missiles and lasers. Without this, however, you must blindly choose a point on the planet’s surface, and chances are you will miss everything. So, again, lots of decisions to be made about how you build your planet’s infrastructure.
Aiming your weapons accurately depends on a number of factors. First, you planet does rotate and revolve, meaning that you may or may not have a shot with a particular weapon structure given its placement relative to the enemy planet (i.e. your weapons need to be roughly facing your enemy during a turn). It pays to spread around your weapons on your planet. Second, you need to take the enemy planet’s orbit in account since it will move while your shots are traveling.
What this means is that you need lead your target, but that is easier said than done. You have to take into account the gravity and motion of the planets and sun within the solar system. Other planets may get in the way, and shots may get pulled out of the intended path. By moving the mouse cursor relative to your planet, you can control the direction and velocity of the shot. The projected firing solution takes all of these factors into account based on current position, but it does not factoring in future position and movement for you. It is tricky and definitely takes some skill with a dash of luck. Another wrinkle is that you can actually have friendly fire, and even hit yourself (you can see this happen in the gameplay video at around 2:35).
Currently in the alpha aiming is actually not very easy to do, because the way the projected shot paths are shown is very spastic and there can be difficult to control. The devs have assured me that they will be vastly improved in the future so it doesn’t worry me too much.
Interplanetary is a very cool twist on an old formula. Combining the artillery style game mechanics with planetary base-building and management is a nice touch, and it should appeal to players who want to engage in some strategic turn-based PvP. It isn’t an action oriented game, and players who are into more twitch-skill-based games will probably not really get into this kind of game. But if you like managing infrastructure and resources and base building type of gameplay, and want to do it with enemy fire raining down up you, then Interplanetary might just be the think you are looking for.
I actually think that this game would be a lot of fun during online matches with teams of players, because having multiple planets firing at each other would make it so much more intense. Hopefully I will have an opportunity to try that at some point if I can find some other alpha testers. For now though, I like what I see and I think the game has potential, even if it is targeting a niche market. Time will tell, and I will be watching the development of Interplanetary closely in the near future.